Parenthood - Perfection is not the answer
I have spent my whole career as a clinical psychologist working with families who are struggling. Therefore the decision to have my own children was one I made fully aware of just how hard parenthood can be.
With the risks of parenthood emblazoned on my mind, I perhaps rather naively believed it might be easier for me, as I had the knowledge, and hopefully the skills to navigate this territory. However, I quickly discovered, that no amount of studying or sitting alongside other parents could prepare me for the emotional hijack that occurred as my body and mind became absorbed in the world of my baby.
Following the birth of my first child, my aspiration to be a perfect mother fell apart as I realised that pursuing perfection led me away from being the mother I needed to be. I had a lot more to learn!
Blindsided by love
I knew that having children was a huge physical and emotional experience and required a re-calibration of my world. However, I was unprepared for my deep obsession with my baby, excluding all else.
I first discovered that to meet my baby’s needs, I had to let go of many things I usually tried to do well and, importantly, not feel like I had failed somehow. Easier said than done! In the early days, I couldn’t maintain a tidy house, a home-cooked meal, or attend to my other relationships, including my husband at the time. But being fiercely independent, found it hard to accept help, or even acknowledge just how tough I was finding it. In hindsight, I would have been less self-critical and let my vulnerability as a new parent create space for other important people to support me.
Tip 1: don’t see needing help as a weakness. To be a good parent we benefit from other trusted people to support us. It really does take a village to raise a child.
What my children taught me about myself
The experience of parenthood has much to teach us about ourselves and life. On this journey our minds are often busy juggling questions about who we are, our approach to parenting and our own experiences of being parented. What bits of our childhood do we want to replicate, and which do we want not to repeat? We likely set out to provide our children with love and stability, however, life throws curveballs which may undermine our resources to do this.
I remember losing someone very dear to me and nearly falling apart. During this time, my children were a balm and a burden. I could see them watching me, worrying about me. They tried to find ways to comfort me or get my attention through bold behaviours. I wondered how I could meet their needs whilst feeling so fragile, so afraid of further loss. In this storm of mixed emotions, I started to appreciate how my mindset and ability to reframe my experiences would be critical to how my children made sense of life and their emotions.
Tip 2: approach your parenting challenges with kind curiosity. You may find opportunities to face some of your own fears; meaning you can then support your child to face theirs.
The early years (0 to 5)
The early years are all about raw emotion and parents play a crucial role in helping children cope with distress and learn about feelings. As uncomfortable as they are, difficult feelings are important and can tell us about what is happening in our child’s world.
It is often easier to know how to respond and resolve physical pain or discomfort (I knew how to comfort my child if they had fallen and hurt themselves or how to feed them if they were hungry). I found it much harder to know how to respond when my child was in emotional pain. I learned I wanted to protect my children from these feelings, and at times attempted to do this by unintentionally dismissing them (“It’s not that bad”), distracting from them (“Some sweets will make you feel better”), or sometimes even punishing them (“Go to your room”).
The hardest, but often most rewarding thing I have had to learn, is to be curious about my child’s difficult feelings and sit with them rather than deny or run away from them (despite the way they make me feel). When children are younger we can do this in how we use language. For example, when our child is angry, instead of using prescriptive language: “You should calm down”, we can use descriptive language: “You are feeling angry.”
We can give our children a space to listen without judgement. In this space we can validate these feelings “It makes sense you would feel sad, you really care about friendship.” And then help work out how to meet the needs underlying these feelings “What can you do that will help you feel cared for by others?” This enables us to discover more about what is important in our child’s world. It also helps them learn to regulate and use emotions meaningfully.
Tip 3: don’t be afraid of difficult feelings. Connecting to your child in their unhappy moments helps them learn to understand their feelings and gives you insight into what is important to them.
Middle childhood (6 to 12)
Parenthood shone a light on my tendency to over-emphasise mistakes, be quick to self-criticise and avoid risk for fear of messing up. I found myself disproportionally worrying about unexpected events and over-analysing my children’s struggles. I worked out that if I did not pay attention to my tendency for hyper-criticism and over-focus on the negative possibilities, it could rub off unhelpfully on my children.
I got fed up with hearing my constant “Be careful!” or “Why did you do that?!?” dampening my kids' enthusiasm for life. Instead, I wanted them to be able to handle mistakes and setbacks and be open to trying new things, even if they might struggle initially.
As our children learn through what we do, not what we say, I had to overcome my tendency to focus on getting everything right and be more open to paying attention to how I handle getting it wrong.
On these occasions, I very deliberately asked myself these questions:
What emotional response does the situation create in me (e.g. frustration, shame, anger, fear)?
In order to cope with this feeling do I: blame others, minimise the issue or become overly critical/punitive?
Can I sit with the feeling and consider: why is this important to me? Is my response proportionate or exaggerated? What can this situation teach me about myself, life, and others?
How can I use this situation to learn and grow?
As hard as it is admitting “I got it wrong”, especially to my children, I have found they love it when I say sorry. Apologising once things have calmed down means I can take responsibility for my part in a disagreement (“I am sorry for losing my temper”) and this frees us up to consider what went wrong and what we could do differently next time. My children have learned through these moments: It is okay to get things wrong, having difficult emotions is normal and if we talk together we can usually put it right.
Tip 4: mistakes can be opportunities for our children and us to learn and grow.
As my eldest child has headed off to university, I am acutely aware of learning to let go. Allowing my teens to do what they can for themselves has sometimes left me slightly lost as a parent.
I am a fan of Christine Carter’s principle of going from “Manager to Coach” – shifting from organising my older children’s lives to giving them the space to make decisions and develop their own skills and interests.
I got this wrong for a while, trying to focus my teens on what was important to me. I have learned that just like when they were younger what they love best is me taking an interest in their world. I found this hard initially, but eventually embraced their more grown-up pursuits enabling me to revive some of my interests (my teens love live music too)! They often force me out of my comfort zone to take a few risks (“You’re so boring Mum, come on – surprise us!”) and their desire for new experiences encourages me to try new things too.
They are keen to discuss challenging topics, meaning I’ve had to broaden my thinking and accept that I don’t have all the answers. If I can tolerate some of the feelings this brings for me (panic that my children’s lens on the world is so broad with the influence of technology!) I get the benefits of learning more about them and the world.